Many of you have followed my series of articles on the Sermon on the Mount, and several have commented on one or more of the entries. I realize that there are many who would like a more in-depth treatment of the subject, but are either unable or unwilling to access the material I referenced because of two very good reasons: (1) Dr. Glen Stassen’s book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context is 491 pages long and not everyone wants to wade into a volume that long and complicated, and (2) the article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount” is found in the Journal of Biblical Literature, a resource not many people have access to or even the desire to access. In order to alleviate those two issues I suggest a third possibility – Dr. Stassen’s smaller and much more accessible book, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) 201 pages in an easy-to-read format with many pages consisting of graphic illustrations.
This book eliminates several of the problems that are associated with longer, college text-book type volumes, and especially with articles in peer-reviewed journals. The book is written for the common member of the church, with few (but adequate) endnotes and a non-technical writing style. However, in terms of content, the book follows Dr. Stassen’s explication of the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount and even goes beyond the more technical works in providing some concrete proposals for how the “transforming initiatives” can be worked out in our contemporary society. The book is divided into 10 chapters, but in his preface Dr. Stassen provides information about how to divide three chapters in half, thus providing for a 13 week study of the Sermon on the Mount to fit into a congregational Bible class format.
Even though the book is relatively short (the 201 pages are easily read – this is not a cumbersome technical exposition) do not be misled – there is a lot of “meat” in this book. Dr. Stassen has studied the Sermon on the Mount in-depth and his writing reveals his research. One thing I found particularly valuable was the many ways Dr. Stassen ties the Sermon back into the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah. This is important because I think that all too often we believe that Jesus was teaching something new and never-heard-before, while all along he was teaching what His Father had been teaching through the prophets for generations.
Another aspect of the book that I genuinely appreciated was the illustrations depicting the “traditional teaching, the vicious cycle, and the transforming initiatives” that are located throughout the book. For those of us who are visually oriented, this is a big help.
Another thing I like about this book is that Dr. Stassen included a much longer section about the spiritual disciplines in this book, as opposed in particular to the JBL article, and this is a significant addition. In fact, Dr. Stassen goes to great lengths to show that the section on prayer is the pinnacle of the sermon, and every other teaching found in the sermon is incorporated into Jesus’ model prayer. It is this kind of working through the text as Matthew constructed it that makes this little volume so valuable.
This book is NOT a critical commentary on Matthew 5-7. If you are looking for a careful definition of terms and high-falutin’ biblical language, you will not find it in this book. This is a book designed to the the word of the Sermon on the Mount into our hearts, and therefore into our hands and feet. The scholarship behind the book is solid, but the presentation is in a popular writing style.
The standard caveat directed to every book applies to this one as well. I am sure that you will find something that Dr. Stassen writes with which you disagree. So be it. I have more than one question mark placed in the margin of my copy, along with an editorial “hmmmm” or two. But I do not buy nor do I read books simply to reinforce that which I already believe. Those volumes are okay to a point, and I have several of those type books on my bookshelves. But what I really look for in a book is the answer to the question, “What does the author have to tell me that I do not know, or that furthers my understanding of a particular topic?” Closely related to that question is another: “How well has the author prepared himself/herself to write this book, and how well does he/she present his/her research?” On the basis of these two questions I can recommend Dr. Stassen’s works on the Sermon on the Mount unreservedly. He is an accomplished scholar and knows how to write both professionally and popularly. He challenges with his insights, and even when you disagree with him you have to accept that he has done his homework well and that he presents his case energetically.
Bottom line – this is a fine addition to your “Sermon on the Mount” section in your library.
Have you ever been relatively sure of something, or maybe even profoundly sure of something, only to find out at a later time that you were relatively, or maybe even profoundly wrong? I hate it when that happens. Especially when I am the perpetrator and the victim.
Matthew 7:6 has always been a “question mark” verse for me. I know how others have interpreted it in the past, and for the most part I have agreed with them. The traditional interpretation is that Jesus is telling us to not call people dogs or pigs (I mean, in 7:1 he just told us not to judge, right?); but, as the interpretation goes, some people are just dogs and pigs. So, even though we are not supposed to, we end up judging people. We decide they are not worth having the gospel preached to them (“that which is holy” and the “pearls”). The amplified interpretation is that, while we are not supposed to judge people’s hearts or motives, we are supposed to be “fruit inspectors” (Mt. 7:16) and if someone looks like a pig, grunts like a pig, and acts like a pig, well, who are we to say otherwise?
As I said, this was my standard interpretation – one I taught and preached for years. I’ve never been 100% comfortable with that interpretation because there was always a nagging question in the back of my mind about how 7:6 was related to 7:1. But, many minds much more brilliant than mine have taught this traditional interpretation, so I put aside my uneasiness and just assumed I was being a little too hyper-critical.
In his article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12), Dr. Glen Stassen has finally given me the answer to my question mark. I encourage you to find the article and read it in its totality, as I do not have the time or the inclination to repeat Dr. Stassen’s entire article here. However, to make a fine and complex argument very short, Dr. Stassen points out that in the contemporary literature that would be circulating during Jesus’ lifetime, the epithets “dog” and “pig” was most uniformly applied to the Romans, and to the Roman government in particular. It is true that the epithets were hurled at other groups, but the overwhelming majority of uses applies to the Romans and the Roman government.
As a striking example of how this played out in the gospel, note the story of Jesus healing the demoniac at Gerasa (Mark 5:1-20). Note the language. Jesus asked the demoniac what his name was, and the man replied, “legion.” Now, a legion is a lot of demons, but a “Legion” was also the identification of a Roman military unit. When Jesus cast the demon(s) out of the man, the “legion” entered into a herd of pigs. Dr. Stassen points out that in the first century, in a culture in which the Roman occupation was hated with a deep passion, this little play on words would not go unnoticed. Was Mark trying to make a point about Jesus’ power over the Roman government, or was this just a fortuitous slip of the pen? It does certainly give me pause to think that there is something else to be considered in Matthew 7:6.
By keeping the “triadic” formula in mind, we see that Matthew 7:6a fits the “traditional teaching” portion of the triad. The “vicious cycle” comes next – if we give that which is holy and the costly pearls to the dogs and pigs they will not care about them or us. They will trample that which is holy and valuable and turn to attack us. The “transforming initiative” then follows, with an extended illustration. We are to continue to keep asking God for that which we need, we are to keep searching for that which we need, and we are to keep knocking at the throne room of heaven. If we ask, we will receive; if we seek we will find; and if we knock it will be opened to us.
But what is Jesus talking about here? Going back to Matthew 6:19 (the verse that takes up immediately after Jesus’ emphasis on the spiritual disciplines) Jesus has been focused on the Kingdom of God, and our relationship to that Kingdom. What Dr. Stassen points out is that we are to keep asking, seeking and knocking for the Kingdom to arrive on earth. Our trust, our hope, the point of our asking, seeking and knocking must be the reign of God on earth. If we hope and trust in his reign, if we ask for it, seek for it and knock on heaven’s door for it to be opened, we will receive, find and have it given to us.
So, if “that which is holy” and the costly “pearl” is our hope, our faith, our trust, how do we throw those things to the dogs and pigs? Simply by giving our faith, our hope, our trust to any and or every human government that we find ourselves subject to.
Bingo! Just like the light bulb coming on over the cartoon character’s head, suddenly now I get it.
Jesus is saying here that the most precious thing we can give to God is our hope, our faith, our allegiance. If we give those things to an earthly government, it will not respect those gifts nor those who give them. They will trample those precious gifts underfoot and then turn and attack the people who surrender those precious possessions.
Can anyone say, “The United States Government?”
I know I sometimes sound like a broken record – the same line being repeated endlessly. But I am just struck by how profound this teaching is throughout Scripture, and this view of Matthew 7:6-21 simply magnifies that teaching to me.
For well over 200 years now Americans have given their allegiance, their hope, their faith, and their trust to a piece of paper called “The Constitution of the United States of America.” Certain individuals have viewed it as the 67th book of the Holy Bible. Some conservative Christians can quote from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence more accurately than they can quote the words of Jesus. But let me ask every conservative, red-white-and-blue, flag waving Constitutionalist what that devotion, how that adoration has benefited the church of Christ?
We now have abortion on demand – and millions of babies die each year at the simple request of their mother. We have some states in which assisted suicide is legal and protected. The use of mind-altering drugs is increasingly becoming legal and protected (the most obvious is alcohol!). Building, staffing and filling prisons with prisoners is a growth industry. We have states in which same-sex marriage is legal and protected. But formal prayers in public schools and in public meeting places is illegal. Posting portions of Scripture in a public place is not allowed. Increasingly we have more and more limits on what once was considered to be free speech. On the other hand, vulgarity, nudity and violence are common themes even in forms of entertainment that are primarily oriented toward children. The divorce rate is astronomical, the birth rate among unwed teenagers is unconscionable, and a federal judge just ruled within the past week that any female should be able to receive an abortifacient drug over-the-counter with no prescription needed. Yes, indeed. We truly are a Christian nation.
We gave everything we considered to be high and holy to the government, and it return it trampled those offerings under foot and now has turned and started to attack those who surrendered those gifts.
Just like Jesus said it would happen.
When will we wake up, disciples of Christ? When will we quit throwing that which is holy and our precious pearls in front of a government that despises them and us? When will we finally understand that the only thing that the government wants is more power? And how long will it take us to finally realize that the government will do anything and everything it needs to in order to achieve that ultimate power?
And when will we start giving our faith, our hope, our trust, and our allegiance back to God?
“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” Matthew 6:33.
This ends my series of thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular, Dr. Glen Stassen’s profound explication of this sermon. I hope it has benefited you as much as it did me.
And I hope that we will soon begin to put this Radical Sermon into some very concrete behavior!
(Note: some bad grammar and punctuation fixed, and sentence clarified 4/14/13. Sorry about the confusing sentence.)
Dr. Glen Stassen, in his article on the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount, says that, ‘The structure of the next triad is straightforward.” That is helpful because some of the triads have not been exactly “straightforward,” at least to a Western, linear thinker like me. So, having something be a little more obvious is always appreciated.
The “traditional teaching” is found in verse 1, and is very similar to the “You have heard it was said…” statements in chapter 5. Jesus simply repeats a proverbial statement that must have had some currency during his ministry: Do not judge, and you won’t be judged. Dr. Stassen views verse 2 as a continuation of the traditional teaching. However, I note that verse 2 could also be the beginning of the “vicious cycle” that virtually always accompanies some self-righteous judgement. If we apply some rigid form of judging, others will apply that same form against us, but usually they will add a little bit to it. We very rarely ever give back exactly what we have been given, we always all a little vinegar along with it. The vicious cycle is then discussed more completely in verses 3 and 4. Invariably what occurs is that we begin to examine others with a microscope when our own sins are so blatant they can be identified a mile away. A mile away, that is, by everyone but us. The illustration Jesus used is meant to be ironic and I believe meant to generate some uncomfortable laughter – at least until the reality of the irony sets it. We are always far more willing to remove specks when the log is protruding from our eye.
What, then, is the “transforming initiative?” It is really quite simple. It is called “repentance.” It is removing the very large and blatant sin in our own life so that we can see clearly to analyze the problem in the lives of others. I think something else is taking place here. Jesus is not giving us a blank check to start solving other people’s problems just as long as we superficially whitewash over our own. What Jesus is saying is, “If you are going to condemn someone, start with yourself. Examine your relationship with God. How pure are you? What is your attitude? How have you acted? What is your motive? And how have your actions been in line with the thoughts, intentions and motives of God?” When we really and truly place ourselves under the same microscope under which we love to place others something transforming should happen. One, we should see just how far we have fallen from the standard we would like to think we have exceeded, and two, we begin to notice that the “speck” in our brother’s eye is not so serious at all. It may need to be removed, yes. But instead of trying to remove it with a rusty pair of vice-grips we use sterilized tweezers and an appropriate amount of anesthesia. True biblical repentance should have a profound and lasting effect upon our willingness to condemn other people.
It has often been noted that the best teacher in any subject is the person who, as a student, had to struggle intensely to overcome any misunderstandings and setbacks. I can relate perfectly. As a flight student I had a bear of a time trying to master flying with reference only to my instruments. I had a mental block, and a pretty sizable physical problem as well. Things just did not seem to want to work for me. With patience and enough time I did earn my instrument rating, went on and earned my Commercial Certificate and both Flight Instructor and Flight Instructor/Instrument ratings. Then the day came for me to start teaching students how to earn their Instrument rating. Because I had made virtually every mistake known to flight students in my own instrument training, I picked up on most of my student’s mistakes very quickly. Not only that, but I was able to sympathize with them and give them encouragement. At my first instructor job I was given several of the “problem” students because either (a) I was good enough to get them graduated or (b) I was too sympathetic to turn them down or a mixture of both. But my success rate was pretty good – something that I look back on with a certain amount of pride.
But, the person who is only able to see the faults of others makes for a lousy teacher. That person makes for even a more lousy judge. That person makes for even a more lousy Christian. The life of discipleship is a life that demands first of all that a person is willing and capable of examining him or herself and making the necessary changes before there can be any confrontation of others.
I wonder how the national debate on homosexuality and same-sex marriage would change if the church would simply focus its attention on the sexual dysfunction of its own heterosexual members before it started to “fix” the homosexual population who has no intention of ever being a part of that church to begin with. That is just one example, but the general principle should be clear. The church has a huge blind spot regarding sexual sin, greed, covetousness, racism, compromise with political powers (idolatry) and the environment. How can we justify much of our own myopic rhetoric when we are so complacent toward and complicit with so many behaviors that God specifically condemns in His eternal revelation?
Our world is bent and broken, to be sure. Of that there is no question. But the church shares that same bentness and brokeness. If we do not seek to repent and remove the log in our own eye we will be incapable of helping the world see its own bentness and brokeness. The church’s great commission does not begin in Matthew 28:16-20. The church’s great commission begins in Psalm 51:1-19 (among many other Psalms of lament). If we do not have a broken heart, no amount of preaching and teaching will ever be acceptable in the Kingdom.
It has been a while since I have spent any time in the Sermon on the Mount, so if you are new to this series you may want to backtrack a little and pick up the context and the pattern for what we have been discussing.
In his article (“The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)”), Dr. Glen Stassen does a good job of demonstrating how 6:24 really fits the context of what follows rather than what precedes. The verse really sounds like a concluding pronouncement, but in light of what has been discussed so far, the argument in favor of linking v. 24 with vv. 25-34 is quite convincing. As we will see in a couple of articles yet in the future, this stylistic manner of looking at the Sermon truly does open it up to a greater degree of understanding.
So, using the pattern Dr. Stassen has identified throughout his article, the “traditional teaching” that Jesus begins with is, “No one can be a slave to two masters.” [With my tongue firmly in my cheek this is perhaps the clearest reason given in Scripture as to why polygamy is wrong.] The “vicious cycle” is either found in the next phrase or the last phrase of the verse. I tend to think that the vicious cycle actually begins with the loving the one master and hating the other. However, Dr. Stassen connects that phrase with the “traditional teaching” and identifies the “vicious cycle” as, “You cannot be slaves of God and money.” Verse 25 continues the vicious cycle – those who are torn between possessions and God are constantly anxious, worried about everything there is to worry about.
The “transforming initiative” is found in three imperatives given in verses 26-28, “Look to the birds, learn from the wildflowers, seek first the kingdom of God.” The behavior that changes everything connected to anxiety and worry is to consider how God takes care of his creation. If man truly is the pinnacle of that creation (which a solid theology of the opening chapters of Genesis clearly pronounces), then God will certainly take care of his highest creation. The most imperative of the three imperatives (not to be redundant) is the command to “seek first the kingdom of God.” This is the major theme that has been running throughout the entire sermon up to this point, although clearly enunciated here for the first time. The Beatitudes illustrate the life that is given over to the Kingdom principles. The discussion of the “traditional teachings” and “traditional practices” that we have examined so far are all illustrative of the vast difference between those who seek the kingdom of this world over the Kingdom of God. Jesus straightforwardly demands that we pray for God’s Kingdom to arrive on this earth just as it exists in heaven. And so here at this climactic point in the sermon, Jesus tells us that any attempt to serve this-worldly kingdom and God’s kingdom is doomed to failure. Quite bluntly Jesus announces that anyone who is worried about the things of this transitory world cannot be concerned about things of the eternal kingdom. Conversely, those who are truly concerned about bringing the eternal Kingdom to the earth will not be distracted nor consumed with the things of this temporary world.
The problem I see with the church today has been amply identified by individuals far more capable of discussing it than I am. The problem is not that the world has defeated the church. That can never happen. The problem is that the church has opened its doors far too wide and has swallowed too much of the world. The church is consumed with concerns that are only important to the kingdom of the Accuser. The church is worried about power (i.e., who is elected in the next cycle of elections), status (do we have the latest technology housed in the most beautiful building?), relevance (are we reaching the next generation?) and its own future. What the church should really be concerned about is love, justice, and mercy. The church should be concerned about Kingdom issues, not power or status or relevance issues. God does not care if we are powerful (because He is our power) our status (because our status is only important in Him) or relevance (it is absolutely blasphemous to think that WE can make God relevant). God is concerned about whether we are faithful in obedience to his commands, which are ultimately based in his grace. If we are disobedient, that is an indication that we either do not recognize or do not trust his grace.
The Sermon on the Mount truly is radical. And, if we would just believe it, would make us a radical church!
Throughout this examination of the Sermon on the Mount we have see where Jesus begins with a traditional teaching (or practice), identifies a descending cycle of behavior (often vicious) and then offers a “transforming initiative” that not only breaks the cycle, but restores the “traditional teaching/practice” to its original, God intended purpose. Thus we see where these instructions truly are instructions for living in the new “reign” or “kingdom” of God.
The traditional teaching here is the injunction not to store up treasures on earth. This is certainly a laudable prohibition, very much in line with “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery.” The vicious or descending cycle is briefly noted: moths and rust eat away both soft materials and some metals, and thieves break in and steal that which is more permanent, but is vulnerable none-the-less. The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.20, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. A repudiation of the “vicious cycle” then occurs, moths and rust cannot destroy nor can thieves steal that which is “in heaven.”
With this section of the sermon the question does not so much lie with “what is the traditional teaching” or “what is the transforming initiative” but is more practical – “how in the world can you lay up treasures in heaven?” That appears to be one of the “impossible commands” that this method of examining the Sermon seeks to avoid.
The answer, as Dr. Stassen points out (readers new to this series of posts need to review the first couple of posts of this title to get the bibliographic information I listed in several posts) is to separate the idea of “this life” vs. the “life hereafter” from the idea of the life that is lived here on earth that is devoid of the reign of God and the life that is lived here on earth that is bathed in the reign of God.
Think of the contrast this way: if you invest heavily in things, if you take pride in your house, your possessions, your retirement portfolio, etc., that is where your heart is going to be. With every new purchase or with every new addition to your collection your level of worry is going to increase proportionally. You will need to buy better locks, invest in an alarm system, maybe buy a vicious guard dog, buy a whole warehouse of guns and ammunition. You will watch the stock market reports like a hawk – and worry incessantly about trends and events over which you have absolutely no control. Where your treasure is, your heart will follow.
Now, contrast that with the one who invests heavily in the reign of God. This person gives to make sure there is justice for those who cannot afford it, who provide food and clothing for those who need it, who share their physical blessings so that those who are lacking in certain necessities are able to receive them. This person will be vitally concerned about the reign or the kingdom of God because he or she has already invested heavily in that reign and kingdom. This person’s heart will follow their treasure as well. Except this person’s treasure cannot be taken away from them; it cannot be destroyed, and it will not self-destruct. This person’s treasure in invested in the kingdom of God. That is, this person’s treasure is invested in the very heart of God Himself. No worries here about the stock market or buying a bigger dead-bolt lock.
As Dr. Stassen points out, there is some debate as to whether v. 24 is attached to this teaching, or begins the next section. If it belongs with this teaching the meaning is self-evident. If you love your treasure here on this earth, you cannot claim to love and follow God. If your heart is firmly attached to kingdom concerns, then you will not be worried about following the god of this world.
Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the oily side down!
In his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount in the article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12), Dr. Glen Stassen compresses Jesus’ teaching on the spiritual disciplines of giving, prayer and fasting into one brief but in-depth treatment. I will attempt to be as brief.
First, the four sections are set up in parallel – “When you give alms…when you pray…and praying…and when you fast.” So there is thematic as well as grammatical cohesiveness to this section. Second, instead of a “traditional teaching” what we see Jesus discussing is a series of “traditional practices” that, just like the traditional teachings, can devolve into a “vicious cycle” that gets the worshipper nowhere. And, third, the pattern that we saw in the first section of the sermon continues with a series of “transforming initiatives” in each of the four teachings on these spiritual disciplines. These initiatives transform both the practice and the one practicing them.
In regard to these spiritual disciplines, the “traditional practice” that Jesus confronts is doing them in order to be seen and praised. The “vicious cycle” is that “they have their reward” but it is not the reward that ultimately matters. Their reward lasts only as long as it takes for someone to give more, pray longer, or fast more solemnly. So, the struggle to win praise and admiration from the crowds because of spiritual practices never ends – in fact, it only gets more and more difficult.
However, the “transforming initiative” for each of these practices focuses on God as the recipient. God receives the alms and thus blesses. God hears the prayers and thus responds. God notices the fast and thus rewards.
So the pattern that Dr. Stassen identified for the section 5:21-5:48 holds true for 6:1-18. Jesus confronts the traditions of those he lived with, and by doing so confronts our traditions as well. Do we practice the “five acts of worship” (singing, praying, Bible study, Lord’s Supper and giving) as rote practices that must be performed as check boxes to be completed, or are we entering into a special relationship with God through each of these (and more)? It is interesting that in the heritage in which I was raised fasting was something that was never taught as a spiritual discipline, or if it was, it was taught as something that was not necessarily a “command” in the Bible. I think just as frequently it was taught as a Roman Catholic practice that we did not have to share (sort of like eating fish on Friday). But notice, Jesus did not say, “If” you fast, he said, “when” you fast. It has been encouraging to me that fasting has made somewhat of a comeback in non-Roman Catholic circles, and I believe the church would be much stronger, and individual Christians would be much stronger spiritually, with a restoration of this very biblical and very Christ-like practice.
I just wish that I could develop the spiritual discipline of fasting. I speak to myself first and foremost.
Brief, yes. Critical, absolutely. Giving, praying and fasting (among the other spiritual disciplines) must be returned to their proper place of emphasis within the church. But that emphasis is on worshipping a holy God, not for the purpose of being seen and praised.
Sometimes serendipity is serendipitous. I have arrived at this passage just as the state of Arkansas has joined several other states in allowing individuals to carry weapons into a church building. The irony of some local yokel carrying a loaded gun into a worship service for the purpose of “self-defense” is simply too vast for me to comprehend. I’m glad I’m not asked to make this stuff up.
The traditional teaching in this passage is easy to identify – “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This is the lex talionis which allowed an aggrieved party to punish the guilty up to, but not exceeding, the range of the crime or affront. Although it is often viewed as permissive, or even mandatory (you must pay back an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth) the original intent was prohibitive. If someone knocked your tooth out, the most you could exact in recompense was a tooth. You could not retaliate violently for a minor offense. Of course, give humans an inch and they will take a mile; so the limitation soon became a freedom and then a requirement.
Jesus, however, not only slows down the descending chain of violence begetting violence, but he actually reverses it! Beginning in v. 39b he gives a series of imperatives that force people to react to evil in novel ways. A humiliating slap does not invite a responding insult, but the offer of further insult and humiliation. A lawsuit does not create a counter-lawsuit but a surrender of more than what is at issue. Forced labor becomes an opportunity for unexpected service. Begging becomes an opportunity for giving. These imperatives (commands, by the way) are so counter-intuitive. They are counter-cultural. They are radical. No one in the United States in their right mind would think of such bizarre behavior. Not today when the mantra is “Stand Your Ground” and “Bring Your Favorite Gun To Church Day” (with a potluck sure to follow).
The key to the passage is found in v. 39a. Dr. Glen Stassen, in his article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12) [Journal of Biblical Literature, 122/2 (2003) pp. 267-308] has a wonderfully brief but profoundly loaded discussion of this partial verse. The phrase is most often translated, “Do not resist the evil one.” However, Dr. Stassen notes that the Greek construction of the phrase can also legitimately be translated, “do not resist by evil means” or “do not resist violently.” The question is, is such a translation valid in this passage? Is Jesus telling us to never resist an evil person, or is he telling us to not use the tactics of the evil person to respond to a real or perceived injury?
First and foremost, if Jesus told us to never resist the evil one, then he clearly violated his own commandment. He resisted many evil beings, beginning with the Satan himself, and continuing through a ministry in which he confronted and resisted many individuals who were bent on evil. He scolded the Pharisees. He resisted Herod. He challenged those who would stone an accused adulteress. He cleansed the temple, throwing out the money changers and those who were taking advantage of the poor. He repeatedly cast out and defeated evil demons, or spirits, within helpless humans. Jesus clearly and often resisted evil and the Evil one. So, strike that option out.
Second, if Jesus taught that his disciples should not use violent tactics against the violent people, it would seem that we would find traces of that teaching throughout the remainder of the New Testament. Well, consider Romans 12:17, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.” Or how about 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all.” And then there is 1 Peter 2:21-23, “For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when reviled he did not revile in return; when suffering he did not threaten, but committed himself to the one who judges justly.” (all quotations from the HCSB).
Nowhere is there a command of abject nonresistance. But everywhere there is the teaching of rejecting violent means to achieve retribution.
As such, v. 39a is a truncated form of the “vicious cycle” that we see throughout the rest of the sermon. But we can see the process playing out in front of our eyes every day. First you get in a fist fight. Then your opponent brings a knife. Then you bring a gun. Then he brings a bigger gun that shoots more rounds. Then you get body armor and a bigger gun with more violent ammunition. On and on the vicious cycle continues.
Jesus’ answer to this mayhem is simply to stop it at the first volley. If someone punches you, turn around and walk away. Don’t escalate the violence. If necessary, be the one willing to absorb the violence.
Jesus died on a cross, people. After telling his disciples to put their stupid swords away.
So, I’m just wondering where in the Bible, especially where in the New Testament, do we as disciples of the crucified one get permission to take up violent weapons and use them against perpetrators of violence. I am not speaking of duly sworn and highly trained peace officers. Check the statistics. The overwhelming majority of those peace officers spend their entire careers never having removed their weapons from their holsters. Many who do are traumatized for the rest of their lives by the experience.
Do we really want some “Dirty Harry” wannabe packing a loaded handgun into a crowded auditorium? Honestly?
And, with our ears focused on this radical sermon from the mouth of Jesus himself, dare we even suggest that such behavior would be a pleasing response in the eyes of our God?
Occasionally I think my atheist friends do have something to add to the conversation. Lord, save us from your followers.
Just in time for Valentines day – a post on divorce. Oh well, no one ever accused me of being graceful. Or romantic.
If you have been following this series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount you know the basic outline by now – Jesus provides a “traditional teaching,” followed by a “vicious cycle” and concludes with a “transforming initiative” that not only undoes the vicious cycle, it eliminates it altogether in the future. This “triadic” formula is different from viewing the sermon as a series of “dyads” or sharp contrasts. I was introduced to this way of looking at the sermon by Glen Stassen.
In Matthew 5:31-32 we have Jesus’ teaching on divorce. First, he gives the “traditional understanding” – if you want to divorce your wife you must give her a certificate of divorce. The modern reader might find it strange here to find divorce coming on the heels of teaching about murder and adultery. (Might we discover just how serious an offense divorce is to God by this listing? It certainly is worth the discussion, anyway.) After this brief introduction of his topic Jesus then describes the “vicious cycle” that divorce causes. First, unless there is a sin that destroys the covenant of marriage to begin with, the divorce itself is a cause of adultery. I believe what Jesus is saying here is that the breaking of ones marriage vows is in itself an act of adultery. The act of marrying someone who is therefore breaking his or her marriage vows is therefore an equal act of adultery. There is so much that Jesus leaves unsaid in this passage. What is the sin that is so variously translated that breaks the marriage covenant? Is it ONLY a sexual sin? Or can there be other sins against a person that are so grievous as to render the marriage covenant void? And why does a divorce outside of this invalidating sin cause a woman (or man, as it may be) to commit adultery? And why would the subsequent marriage partner also be guilty of committing adultery? These questions can be raised, but from this text there are no answers. There is only this descending “vicious cycle” that Jesus identifies of increasing adulterous relationships.
The startling aspect of this passage is that there is no “transforming initiative” listed! We would expect Jesus to say, “But,” or “Therefore,” or “However,” or some such connecting word and go on with his teaching on how to confront divorce. But he does not. He left the original audience, and the modern reader, hanging.
At least in Matthew, he does. As Dr. Stassen points out, the Holy Spirit provided the “transforming initiative” through another writer, some years later.
As Dr. Stassen admits in his article,”The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12),” this passage perplexed him as it violated the structure of the rest of the sermon in a significant way. Once you create a particular structure it is not common to detour from that plan unless you have good reason. Whatever reason Jesus (or Matthew, if this is Matthew’s structure) had, we are simply left with the problem of a culture that is so focused on meeting “my felt needs” and “making me happy” that all we have are more and more and more divorces. But, the “hole in the donut” can be a very profound way of bringing attention to a solution that is so well known that it does not have to be articulated. Jesus could have simply paused here for a moment, shrugged his shoulders and closed his eyes as if to say, “You all know the solution to this problem, it is so clear I don’t have to say it.”
The “transforming initiative” as Dr. Stassen identifies it, does in fact exist, and it does come from Jesus. However, it is located in the book of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. In his discussion on marriage and divorce, the apostle Paul makes the statement, “I command the married – not I but the Lord – a wife is not to leave her husband. But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. (Emphasis mine). So, the transforming initiative was recognized by the early disciples even though we do not have specific record of Jesus uttering the words. The “transforming initiative” is reconciliation! According to the Mosaic law, a man was not allowed to take a woman back as a wife after he had divorced her and she had subsequently remarried, and then later became a widow or was divorced a second time. Jesus, and by extension the early church, stressed that if a divorce were to occur the individual was to remain single or to be reconciled to his or her partner. If you could not stay married, stay single! The practice of serial marriages and divorces was to stop! Multiple marriages and multiple divorces were just a legal manner of committing adultery against the covenant of marriage to a person’s first marriage partner.
No matter how you ultimately decide to interpret Jesus and Paul on the question of divorce and remarriage, I believe we can all agree on the fact that divorce is one of the great scourges of the church today. The fact that so-called “Christians” divorce and remarry as frequently as non-christians is truly disturbing. I do not care for the agenda that homosexuals and those who advance the idea of same-sex marriage are promoting, but one thing they say is correct: if Christians do not value the institution of hetero-sexual marriage any more than it appears we do, who are we to condemn the practice of same-sex marriage?
I think I should also be honest here and admit that I do not subscribe to the idea that there is a marriage “in God’s eyes” that is separate and distinct from a civil marriage on earth. If a man and woman marry, they are married in God’s eyes and on earth. If they divorce, they are divorced in God’s eyes and on earth. The divorce might be the result of a sin, or it might be sinful in and of itself, but the divorce ends the legal and spiritual union of the couple. Divorce was never intended by God, but God did provide measures for the protection of those most negatively affected by divorce (namely, the woman) and He made sure that she had rights that had to be recognized.
What we have done as a culture is take that protection, that “escape clause” and turn it into a three ring circus. We make divorce simply a pre-requisite to getting re-married. Marriage covenants do not mean anything anymore – just get a good lawyer and a pre-nuptual agreement so that when you get a divorce you are protected.
To me, looking at the sermon as a series of triadic statements really draws attention to v. 31-32. The silence of Jesus speaks volumes.The answer really is so simple we do not need to hear his words of command.
If you are going to get married, stay married. Do not stray. Do not violate your marriage covenant. And if you are so hard hearted that you cannot stay married, then stay single. Stop the endless, and descending, cycle of the marriage-divorce-adultery merry-go-round.
In the Kingdom of God relationships are to be different. Especially the marriage relationship is to be different. Husbands and wives are to love and cherish one another. Divorce is to be unheard of. In the Kingdom, the word that is to be heard in marriage disputes is reconciliation. Whether it is heard in silence, as in the Sermon on the Mount, or in words, as in Paul’s letter, it is to be heard, and in being heard, it is to be obeyed.
Happy Valentines Day, y’all!
I am continuing a long series of thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount. The outline of this entry will follow the basic outline I have already described: Jesus sets forth the “traditional understanding” of a command, then describes a “vicious cycle,” and then gives a “transforming initiative” that redirects the disciple’s attitude and action toward a particular situation.
The traditional understanding at issue in Matthew 5:27-30 is to avoid adultery. The command is straight-forward and Jesus does not need to expound on it. The “vicious cycle” is found in v. 28: the physical act of adultery begins in the leering look and the imaginative mind. The “transforming initiative” then follows in vv. 29 and 30 with four specific imperatives – take it out, throw it away, cut it off and throw it away. So far this explication fits almost identically with the “traditional” or “dyadic” form of understanding the teaching. So what is so different about looking at this passage as a triad instead of a dyad?
The answer revolves around how a person views v. 28. The traditional view holds the leering look and the imaginative mind as being equal to the physical act. That is to say, if you ogle a woman and wonder how she would perform in the bedroom, you have actually become an adulterer. This understanding is both built upon and supports the “one sin is as bad as another sin” concept. But I believe this interpretation is flawed, and for a very important reason.
First, if we hold to the idea that the leering look and the image in the mind are equal to the physical act of adultery we are omitting a very significant part of the equation. The physical act of adultery is a stain on at least two lives, not just one. You commit adultery against your spouse, but with another person. Strictly speaking, one person cannot commit adultery, any more than one person can commit murder. Murder always involves more than one person. If you hate someone, that hate does not damage them unless a physical act is attached to the hate. Likewise, with adultery, a leering look does not damage them, nor does it necessarily damage your spouse, although if he or she should see you leer at another person it might hurt them deeply.
Likewise, if we hold the leering look or the imagination of the mind to equal adultery, then the barrier to actually participate in the adultery is removed. “Oh well,” we might say, “I’m already guilty of adultery, so I might as well DO it and at least get some enjoyment out of it.”
So, I really do not think that Jesus is saying that the sin of leering is equal to the sin of adultery. I think what he was saying is that the sin of leering leads to the sin of adultery (he has committed adultery with her in his heart, that is to say, he plans it and wills it to happen), not that the one rises to the seriousness of the other.
Now I know that the “traditional” view has been taught by so many for so long that many of you may think that I have lost it here. But, if you are still with me by this paragraph you haven’t given up on me altogether, so I ask you to try this little experiment:
If you believe that Jesus is saying that the sin of leering is absolutely equal to the sin of adultery, and that therefore Jesus must be speaking in concrete and absolute terms here (not relative and metaphorical), then ask yourself this question: have you ever, ever, ever looked at a member of the opposite sex and been struck by their sexual attributes? That is to say, have you ever, ever, ever had a thought of a sexual relationship after having seen a person, or even a picture of a person of the opposite sex? If we are being honest with ourselves I honestly doubt that one person out of one hundred can truly make that claim. We are creatures who are bounded by our sexuality. And this situation applies to women just as much as men, although they may imagine a relationship with a man based more on his relating skills as much or more than his physical attributes. In other words, she fantasizes about being in a physical relationship because of the way he treats her, not the way he fills out his t-shirt. With men the attraction is far more physical.
So – have we answered the question yet? If you said “no” I question your blood pressure or your honesty, but that is up to you. If you said “yes” however, did you pluck out your eye or chop off your hand? If you did not, why not? If Jesus is literally and absolutely linking a lingering look or a passionate thought to the physical act of adultery, then you are literally and absolutely bound to follow the commands of v. 29-30. But I would suggest that we never, ever, ever, follow the commands of v. 29-30 because we say that Jesus is being metaphorical in those commands. He does not expect us to literally pluck out our eye or chop off our hand, but we are to remove or to disable the situation or the process that would allow us to move from intention to reality. So, in reality what we are saying is that we believe the leering look or the imaginative scene is as sinful as the act of adultery, but we refuse to act as if the two are equal. Therein lies the problem with the traditional interpretation.
By viewing the paragraph as a triad the overall point is preserved, but I believe the progressive nature of the passage is highlighted. First we see. We cannot control what we see. But, according to Jesus, the sight turns into a stare. And then the stare turns into a lustful imagination. And then the imagination turns into a plan. And then the plan is carried out. And so the leer turns into actual adultery. It is a the “vicious cycle” that Dr. Glen Stassen so eloquently describes. And, at each point in the progression, there is a “transforming initiative” that allows us not only to stop the progression, but to reverse it and to treat members of the opposite sex and valued human beings instead of sex, or relationship, objects.
The “transforming initiative” is to stop the process at its source, or as quickly thereafter as it has been identified. We turn our gaze away. If we have looked too long we reject the accompanying imaginative thoughts. If we have proceeded that far we then must remove the physical proximity that would allow a sexual relationship to occur. If physical proximity is mandated because of job or some other requirement, we remove the possibility of an affair by making sure that other people are present with or near us. At every point along the path from sight to the physical sin there is a point of redemption. But, and this is significant, the ultimate transformation is to view the other as a precious human being, a daughter or son of God, not as a piece of property that can be used and discarded as one wishes.
And now for the standard word of clarification. I am NOT saying that leering is not a sin. I am NOT saying that using our imaginations to dream of a sexual relationship is not a sin. I am NOT saying that if we have ogled some woman that we should go ahead and have sex with her just because one sin is as bad as another. I do believe that adultery, as with murder, is a far worse crime and sin than lust or hatred. Jesus is not equating two levels of sin. What he is saying is that one level of sin inevitably leads to a higher level of sin if the root cause is not ultimately dealt with.
In this radical sermon, Jesus is giving us the “transforming initiative” that allows us the way to conquer that root sin. It just makes a whole lot more sense to me.
As always, comments and critiques are welcome.
(For source information, see Glen Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003) 267-308; and Glen H. Stassen and Donald P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).
The “traditional” way to understand this passage is, “The Old Testament condemns the act of murder, but Jesus condemns the underlying sin of anger, so even being angry will be enough for God to send you to hell.” At least that is one reading of the text, and one that I fear is all too common, although in real life we do not apply it as such. Interpreted in such fashion the command of Jesus becomes impossible. It is the interpretation that the “doofus” that I mentioned in my last post was absolutely certain was correct. So correct, in fact, that he flat out said it was impossible to obey, so the best we could do was to come close.
The fact is anger is an emotion, just like love, or joy, or frustration. God gave us those emotions. Anger is, in many situations, good and healthy. If we cannot get angry over sin, how are we supposed to react to it? Was Jesus never angry? That is an absurd assertion. And, I would suggest, Jesus got angry at people as well as circumstances and situations. But, I will argue, Jesus never sinned in his anger. He released it, worked through it, managed it – however you wish to describe it, but Jesus dealt with his anger in a healthy, God honoring manner. How did he teach us to deal with our anger?
According to Dr. Glen Stassen’s organization, Jesus begins with a “traditional understanding.” That is almost always prefaced with the phrase, “You have heard it said.” Jesus identifies murder as the final result of an untreated anger problem. Those who murdered were liable to judgment.
Then, Jesus goes on to discuss a “vicious cycle” that results from any anger that is not dealt with. Anger that is not dealt with leads to verbal attacks which will then escalate into physical attacks. Each will land the antagonist before the judges. But it is important to note here that there is no imperative verb in verse 22. Jesus is not making a command never to be angry – or for using colorful language for that matter. He is simply describing a cycle that corrupts the person and slowly descends into a physical confrontation. If we stop here and think that Jesus has simply equated anger with murder we have missed the point. Anger is not murder. To equate anger with murder is to make living life impossible. If anger is equal to murder, then Jesus committed murder, Paul committed murder, Peter committed murder – and likely you have as well. I know I would be in a perpetual state of murder. Is that what we want this passage to say?
However, when we turn to verses 23-26 Dr. Stassen points out that there are 5 imperative verbs in the Greek text. This section is not some quaint illustration that would keep us from murdering our enemy, but it is the transforming initiative that allows us to deal with our anger in a manner that honors God and reconciles our brother. Notice the context is one of worship. We want to have unmediated access to God, yet there is a wall between us and our brother. We are to take down that wall so that God can see the purity of our sacrifice. We are not simply avoiding murder by not using foul language, but we are taking the initiative to repair and restore a broken relationship.
This passage is not a command never to be angry. That would be an impossible ideal, a ridiculous command, a cold and heartless law – and virtually impossible to obey. In fact, even God Himself is portrayed at various times as being an “angry” God. Hmmm. If anger keeps a spirit out of heaven, exactly where is God supposed to go?
But, if we see this passage as a “triad” instead of a “dyad,” if we see v. 22 as the descending cycle that results when we refuse to deal with our anger issues, and when we see vv. 23-26 and the “transforming initiative” that gives us the ability and the power to work through our anger in a manner that is pleasing to God, this passage becomes a text that exemplifies God’s transforming grace. It is how we are to live in the Kingdom, right here and right now.
One final word – please do not look to me as a shining example of how to make this verse work. I have been cut out of a bolt of cloth that tends to hold feelings in until they explode – usually in very unhealthy ways. But, that having been said, this new way of looking at the Sermon on the Mount is deeply meaningful to me. Instead of trying to reach an impossible goal, I now believe that Jesus was giving me a rope to grab onto so that I can be pulled out of my fits of anger. In other words, instead of bitter judgment I read transforming grace. That is why I think Dr. Stassen’s interpretation is so much more healthy than my earlier understanding. I’m not “there” yet, but at least the path where I want to go is more clear. I hope it is for you as well.
For those who are new to the discussion, Dr. Stassen’s explication can be found in his book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context and an article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12) Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003) 267-308.